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The Mental Whetstone: Unconventional Ways to Hone Your Wits

“Make sure you take the time to feed yourself with what your spirit has to offer.” — Darren L. Johnson, American author.

The Mental Whetstone:  Unconventional Ways to Hone Your Wits by Laura StackNo doubt about it: you have to keep your wits sharp to successfully lead a team. Some experts claim that doing tough mental exercises will help you sharpen your mind: the New York Times crossword, Sudoku, logic puzzles, reading, learning new tasks, taking classes, and so on. While there’s nothing wrong with any of those activities, some scientists say these studies are flawed—the jury’s still out on that.

I tend to intuitively believe the studies that show dementia and Alzheimer’s have large genetic components, so I’m always eager to know how to keep my wits sharp. But the way I look at it, I’m getting plenty of mental stimulation from the challenges of running a business and doing my job on a daily basis.

Think about it. In addition to juggling umpteen projects, you’re constantly busy planning how to delegate them to your team members, trying to balance the summer’s vacation schedule, digging up more work for when times get lean, clearing workflow blockages, jumpstarting new projects, mediating disputes between team members and/or co-workers, introducing people to others in your network, and handling a hundred other little tasks. That provides enough mental activity for any ten Sudoku volumes, with a Martin Gardner Mathemagics book on the side.

So I’m going to buck the trend here and say that instead of doing more to hone your mental alertness, you should do less.

The Inactive Angle

My specialty as a productivity expert is showing people how to do more in less time. I try to practice what I preach and do get a tremendous amount done. But the most important part of my life revolves around my loved ones, so I want to spend as much time with them as possible.

But in a world where agility, flexibility, speed, and innovation have become watchwords, you can easily get overworked and overwhelmed. I believe doing too much causes you to lose your mental edge, not hone it.

You aren’t a robot. You can’t work nonstop. You must take a little time to back up, breathe—and give yourself a break. Literally. Then you can put your head down and work anew. Try these tips to get you there:

1. Get on top of your to-do lists. While you require to-do lists to structure your productivity, they can get out of hand—especially if you pile on 137 tasks in your quest to get things done. Triage your task lists mercilessly, and then prioritize what remains by importance and due date. Practice purposeful abandonment of the least important tasks and delegate like crazy.

2. Review your goals. Stop, look around, and re-evaluate where you are—and where you should be. Does your current path align with the organization’s? What about your team and personal goals? If things seem hopelessly snarled, take a weekend off and check into a hotel for a 48-hour strategic thinking retreat. You’ll emerge organized and excited.

3. Take your breaks. You have lunch break and weekends off for a reason: to recharge your mental batteries, regaining your edge before you return to the front. You may occasionally skip a break or work through a weekend because of a tight deadline, but don’t make a habit of it—or you’ll pay down the line. And take your full vacations! Escape the hassles of the office, if only for a week or two a year. If possible, disconnect as much as possible.

4. Disconnect for family and friends. Stop checking work email incessantly throughout the evening. Be present with the people you care about most. Even if you stay busy physically, you still need a change that allows your brain to bounce back to its normal elasticity and sharpness.

5. Have fun at work. While we can’t all offer in-house games, personal projects, and free candy like Google and some other companies do, work doesn’t have to mean drudgery. Don’t act frivolously, but do give your people reasons to look forward to work every day. Do things to promote solidarity, celebrate important life events, and publically reward team members who’ve done exceptionally well. Appoint yourself or someone else the Morale Officer, and don’t lose sight of the post’s importance.

Walking That Fine Line

Working hard and doing your job well is important; no one disputes that. That said, you don’t—or at least shouldn’t—live to work. You need to regain control of your productivity so you can get out of the office on time—not only to recharge and recapture your mental edge, but also to devote to the people you care about, and who care about you.

Sometimes work has to wait while you live the rest of your life. Then jump back into the fray when you’re at your best—you’ll end up doing a much better job than if you’d just trudged straight through.

Rebooting Your Productivity: How to Recover from a Workflow Crash

Rebooting Your Productivity:  How to Recover from a Workflow Crash by Laura Stack #productivityLet’s say your productivity takes a nosedive. Maybe you’ve gotten lazy with your planning processes and your to-do lists are out of control. Perhaps you went on vacation, and you just haven’t been able to get on top of your inbox. Maybe you have a looming project due date that you haven’t even been able to think about. Or maybe unexpected changes in your industry have presented new challenges and taken you off your original course.

Now what?

Every second you’re out of the race, you and those depending on you fall farther behind. So leap into action, resolved to restore your productivity in record time. But how do you reboot your productivity? Do what you do when your computer crashes—a hard reboot.

A hard reboot always seems to be the last resort. You throw your hands up in the air, accept that you’re dead in the water, and push the button. So just accept that you’re stuck, stop dwelling on it and wallowing around in your frustration, and decide to hit the restart. You may have to be pretty harsh about it. In 2012, Merck Pharmaceuticals’ new R&D head, Roger Perlmutter, had to clear out the bureaucratic deadwood—human and otherwise—before he could return his division to profitability.

When everything’s ready, flip the proverbial switch and put your head down for a few hours. Get mad. Get decisive. Get fast. For me, a productivity hard boot is a personal retreat. I check myself into a hotel a mile up the road and check out 48 hours later, refreshed, reenergized, and reorganized. I think, write, plan, strategize, and get caught up. I don’t leave the room (go somewhere with a microwave and refrigerator and take your meals with you). It’s so exciting that I can hardly sleep.

We can’t control everything in our environments, but we can accept that things can and do fall apart. When they do, how you react will test your strength and character—and how quickly you bounce back. So when you take it on the chin, bop life back and move on. Learn from experience, pulling whatever’s useful from the wreckage, and rebuild something stronger. Remember: you never really fail until you give up.

What does your version of a productivity hard reboot look like?

That Little Extra Something: Harnessing Your Personal Creativity at Work

“We have to continually be jumping off cliffs and developing our wings on the way down.” — Kurt Vonnegut, American author.

That Little Extra Something: Harnessing Your Personal Creativity at Work by Laura StackIf it hadn’t been for drive-thru banking, fast food would be a lot less convenient. Years ago, a McDonald’s vice president was visiting the drive-thru window at his local bank when he thought, “Why couldn’t this work for our restaurants?” The rest is history. McDonald’s integrated the drive-thru idea into its new stores, and now lots of restaurants use drive-thru windows, including Starbucks. If a store doesn’t have a drive-thru window and you’re in a hurry to get a burger or a mocha latte, you probably won’t even stop there.

This represents just one example of the value of unleashing your personal creativity on a work problem. It costs you nothing extra, except maybe a little brain sweat, and it can deeply benefit your organization. If you lead a team, encourage them to think of novel ways to boost the company’s profit. It’s in everyone’s interest, it’s cheap, and as with Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, you never know what you’re gonna get. Oftentimes ideas strike in the shower, while commuting, or as with the McDonald’s VP, while running errands.

Give that childhood creativity you’ve been reining in for the last few decades a chance to come out and play! Consider these suggestions for blending creativity with your work processes.

1. Set aside some time for creativity. You may have heard of a little company called Google. Until recently, they let some employees spend up to 20% of their time working on personal projects they felt could boost the company’s profitability. Results included Gmail and AdSense, and possibly Google+ (sources differ). The practice clearly produced some excellent products and earned them millions while it lasted. You may not be able to give your people a full day a week to pursue personal projects, but the occasional half-hour spent brainstorming can have a positive effect on your productivity.

As leader, you have more flexibility when it comes to spending your time. For example, you might get up half an hour early and think while your home or office is still quiet. Marketer T.J. Rohleder of M.O.R.E., Inc., whose company has grossed over $160 million since its inception in 1988, credits his “Five A.M. Club” concept with earning him a significant percentage of said millions. He gets up no later than 5:00 A.M. every morning, sits down with a pen, a pad of paper, and a cup of coffee, and lets his mind wander until inspiration strikes.

2. Study other disciplines. We’ve all heard of hybrid vigor. In nature, some of the most vigorous creatures are crossbreeds. For example, mules—the offspring of horses and donkeys—are amazingly strong and durable. “Heinz 57″ varieties of pets and livestock tend to be healthier than purebreds, because inbreeding reinforces bad genes and produces more “duds” than random breeding.

The same goes for business ideas. Read widely about successful people and businesses in a variety of fields, stay aware of scientific progress in fields other than your own—and keep your eyes open. That’s how the McDonald’s VP picked up his multibillion-dollar idea when he visited his drive-thru bank. How many other fast food restaurateurs had done the same and completely missed the connection?

3. Listen to your team’s ideas and advice. Your team probably has combined experience measured in decades. Take advantage of that experience, urging everyone to make suggestions about how to better achieve company or team goals. If they prefer to stay mum, offer a reward for profitable ideas. You may jostle a few loose.

Their ideas may be like seedlings: when they first emerge, you never know which will die off, which will become a weed, or which will grow into a mighty oak that buttresses your organization’s success. So give ideas a little time to mature before you thin them out. That way, you can better identify the ones that will profit you.

4. Don’t punish failure. Everyone makes mistakes or overestimates the worth of some things. Most ideas fail. Some fail dismally, like Microsoft Bob. (If you don’t remember Bob, then I think I’ve make my point). Let your people err without worrying about punishment. Otherwise they may give up too soon. There’s an old joke about someone’s uncle who invented 1Up through 6Up before giving up…and though meant only as humor, it does teach one a sly lesson about tenacity. Many famous entrepreneurs—T. Boone Pickens, Donald Trump, H. Ross Perot, and others—failed multiple times in their careers before striking it rich.

Creativity Unbound

While we have procedures and traditions for a reason, we can’t let them hold us back. In many ways, modern business consists of the blind leading the blind. The mavericks, who keep their eyes open and are willing to try something new, drive innovation. So open your eyes to the possibilities; because as the saying goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Imagine how well you can do with both eyes open.